The science of the human brain is no stranger to scrutiny. The various neural pathways, segments, and chambers of the mind have been studied, bisected, and dissected to an exceptional degree. If you scour the internet, you’ll find the amount of information available that details all the capabilities and limitations of the human brain is virtually endless.
Our mild obsession makes sense, though.
Because our brains are what set us apart from the animal kingdom. Human minds have developed limitless technologies and established rules of society. They’ve prolonged life and disrupted the natural course of things. And they’ve — quite literally — changed the face of the planet.
So all the hype in scientific circles about gray matter is very real.
At The Moments, we’re not scientists, but we find the way our brains respond to sensory stimulation particularly fascinating. Mostly because sensory stimulation — the practice of using everyday sounds, foods, and objects to elicit a positive response or feeling through memory — plays a significant role in our treatment for Alzheimer’s or dementia.
And while we’re intrigued by all five of our senses and the types of memories they draw forth, we find food and the sense of taste to be particularly exciting.
But it’s all very involved and — at times — convoluted, so if we want to fully understand our connection with food and the relationship between food and memory, we have to go way back into the very roots of our past.
How It All Began
Food wasn’t exactly easy to come by millions and millions of years ago. Early humans didn’t have access to modern conveniences like local grocers or restaurants. As such, they were foragers, surviving primarily on fruits, herbs, and seeds. And at first, it was all instinctual in nature. Our ancestors were compelled by the part of the brain that told them if they didn’t eat, they wouldn’t survive. So they ate, and they survived.
But just like their minds and bodies started to evolve, so did the ways they engaged with food.
Humans first discovered the taste of meat 2.6 million years ago — with the cultivation of cereals, straggling behind, believed to have begun in different parts of the world about 12,000 years ago. And it was just 10,000 years ago that agriculture came into play.
And all that change was fueled by the human mind: Our curiosity. Our creativity. And our need for community.
We’ve come a long way.
Today, we mix spices and herbs to create unique flavor combinations. We literally change food on a molecular level. And mealtimes are often treated like full-blown events.
That’s because the human brain doesn’t just see food as an instinctual need. For human beings, the act of eating isn’t all about survival — it’s about preparing, creating, and discovering. It’s about joy and love and connection. And those connections influence memory function in ways we’re just beginning to understand.
The Power of Food and Memory
We all have vivid memories of food. Because we put so much of our hearts and souls into the food we eat and the people we share our meals with, it’s easy to see how taste acts as a direct link between the food we eat and the memories we make.
It’s because memories are stronger and easier to recall when they’re attached to a physical sensation and grounded in an emotional experience.
Science backs this up, too, confirming that specific areas of the brain and taste receptors are directly linked. When flavors wash over our taste buds, their nerve endings flip the proverbial switch and send signals to the brain stem, which then sends that information to the thalamus and the cerebral cortex — making us aware of the sweet or bitter taste in our mouths.
It just so happens that the olfactory bulb — located near the amygdala and hippocampus — helps us distinguish various flavors. Why is that important? Because the amygdala and hippocampus are responsible for the processing of emotion and the storage of episodic memory.
And that’s how food connects us with memories.
Food and Memory Care at The Moments
At The Moments, we’ve witnessed the power food can have on a person’s emotional state. For some, a good meal is as comforting as a warm blanket on a rainy afternoon. For others, particularly older adults experiencing cognitive decline, food can be a source of anger and frustration.
We also understand the role food and nutrition play in the overall health of our residents — and that’s why we’ve put an incredible amount of thought into the structural design of our facility and the development of individual care plans.
Visit us to learn more about how taste and food can be strong supports for folks who need memory care.